Coronado National Forest Overview
Anyone who's driven Interstate 10 through southern Arizona knows that the region's lowland desertbone-dry, dusty, and often searingly hotisn't the most hospitable of American landscapes. And from the roadways, the steep, wrinkled topography of the mountain ranges that rise here and there from the desert floor doesn't look much more user-friendly; some green is visible, but when it's 110 degrees where you are, it is hard to grasp the difference that a few thousand feet of elevation can make.
Wend your way up into the mountains, however, and you'll learn this astonishing truth: The environment of these ranges is a total departure from what you'll find on the flats. Temperatures are far lower, water is relatively abundant, and the wildlife and flora are largely what you'd expect to find high in the Rocky Mountains.
Coronado National Forest protects 12 of southeastern Arizona's "sky islands," mountainside oases that are the real treasure houses of the region. Views are spectacular from these mountains, and visitors may experience all four seasons during a single day's journey, spending the morning wandering among giant saguaros and colorful wildflowers, having a picnic lunch under the brilliant golden leaves of a cottonwood tree, and playing in the snow later in the afternoon. The mountains are year-round playgrounds for outdoor recreation, including hiking, mountain biking, and some of the world's best bird-watching.
Bird the Cave Creek Canyon
On the eastern side of the Chiricahua Mountains, near the town of Portal, is a steep-sided canyon set with lovely sycamore trees and a gurgling stream. It's a gorgeous spot, but that's not the source of its fame—Cave Creek Canyon is known throughout the world's bird-watching community as one of the most incredible birding areas on the planet. It's a cool, well-watered spot in the largest "sky island" in Coronado National Forest. The watershed straddles the fringes of desert habitat typical of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, and is smack in the middle of a major migratory pathway. Birders pile into the area in May to add such species as elegant trogon, painted redstart, hepatic tanager, zone-tailed hawk, Strickland's woodpecker, and flammulated owl to their life list; there are lots of rare hummingbirds here as well.
Backpack the Arizona Trail
The Arizona Trail—the work-in-progress long-distance path running from Arizona's border with Mexico north to its border with Utah—comprises everything from scorched low desert to cool alpine mountaintop, and runs along several of the mountain ranges encompassed by Coronado National Forest. One of its best-maintained, most interesting sections—and a blessedly cool relief to locals seeking refuge from summer's searing heat and climate-controlled air—runs along the Huachuca Mountains just west of Sierra Vista. A long but well-graded climb brings hikers to the crest of the Huachuca Mountains, with mile after mile of craggy, spectacular views. Lowland canyons and riparian areas offer prime bird-watching and an opportunity to see the elusive raccoon-like coatimundi, usually found only south of the Mexican border. The Canelo Hills Passage is lower and rounder, characterized by gently rolling hills, wide-open vistas, and dramatic canyons.
Mountain Bike a Sky Island
Yet another of Coronado National Forest's assets is its exceptional system of fat-tire trails. High up in these hills are expanses of cool, open, airy ponderosa-pine forest that's crisscrossed by fire roads and singletrack. There's plenty of good riding in the Santa Ritas, Santa Catalinas, and other ranges close to Tucson, but it's worth the trip to head east to the Chiricahuas, the most spectacular sky island in the national forest. Set just south of Chiricahua National Monument, the 20-mile Pinery Canyon Loop runs over dirt roads and a few steep, rocky sections. The mouth of this canyon is broad and grassy with healthy stands of pinyon and juniper trees flanking the hillsides. The grassy canyons and their big trees (some of which are 500 years old), give way to old-growth pine forests. This little range is a spectacular study of changing life zones, and the views out into the desert grassland valleys (Spring Valley to the west, Simon Valley in New Mexico to the east) are superb.
Ski Mount Lemmon
Tucson's timeless icon is the saguaro cactus, so we'll forgive the skepticism of outsiders who find it hard to believe that there's good skiing just outside this desert city. But it's true—up in the fastness of the national forest north of the city is Mount Lemmon, a 9,157-foot peak that's home to the southernmost ski resort in the United States. It may not be a Jackson Hole in terms of steeps, but Mount Lemmon is frequently blanketed with dry powder from mid-December through early April. With one chair and a dozen mellow trails, it's a fine family area that qualifies as something more—it's the only winter-sports show in town.
Drive the Sky Island Scenic Byway
One of the most scenic highways in the southwest, the Mount Lemmon Highway provides access to a fascinating land of breathtaking vistas, outlandish rockscapes, cool mountain forests, and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts. Because the road starts in the Lower Sonoran vegetative life zone and climbs to the high forests of the Canadian zone, it offers the biological equivalent of driving from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada in a short stretch of 27 miles. Here you'll find plants and animals and geology that exhibit some of the most wide-ranging natural diversity to be found in any area of comparable size in the continental United States.
As you drive up the mountain, every turn seems to reveal something new. In some places that may be a community of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers different from the one just around the previous curve. In others, it may be a new gallery of natural rock sculptures even more impossibly perched than the last, or a broader panorama that stretches in an entirely different direction than the one that caused you to stop and snap a photo just a few moments before. There are turnouts at scenic overlooks, several campgrounds and picnic areas, and dozens of hiking trails leading off into the mountain's backcountry canyons and ridges.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication